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Parks as a Catalyst for Positive Change: A Conversation With Hanaa Hamdi

Dr. Hanaa Hamdi, Director of Health Impact Investment Strategies and Partnerships for New Jersey Community Capital, sat down with NRDC’s Stephanie Gidigbi of the SPARCC national team to expand on a SPARCC Virtual Learning Conversation event highlighting the vital importance of parks in the health and well-being of communities.

Dr. Hanaa Hamdi (left) and Stephanie Gidibgi (Right)

“Every community has a right to have access to quality parks within walking distance from where they live, work, learn and worship.”

This quote, and all others in this article, from Dr. Hanaa Hamdi.

Stephanie Gidigbi: We got so much good feedback after hearing your keynote at the Virtual Learning Conversation event and want to dig down into your work.

Hanaa Hamdi: Thank you. It was a great opportunity to speak and learn about the work coming out of the various SPARCC cities. What’s particularly exciting to see how these communities are actively working to plan and develop whole and healthy communities inclusive of parks and other green public spaces. This past May, I had the honor to join New Jersey Community Capital (NJCC) as director of Health Impact Investment Strategies and Partnerships. As a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and with an arm in community preservation, NJCC has a very long and rooted history in sustainable community development and neighborhood revitalization. My role adds to this tradition, as we are now more focused and intentional about building healthy, inclusive and equitable neighborhoods. This means we are focused on people, places, polices and partnerships that support holistic and comprehensive approach to investing in all assets of strong and healthy neighborhoods—such as safe and stable homes, high-quality early childhood education, vibrant main streets with small business opportunities and community spaces that engage and invite all people. More specifically, my role is to develop and implement strategies that advance health equity in all aspects of our work. We are well aware that we can’t do this alone, we need to partner with, private-public and cross-sector collaborators that share our mission and vision of healthy communities. To that end, my team and I work to cultivate partnerships with health and non-health organizations who have interest in building healthy communities. Given that 80% of our health is determined by environments outside of health care, such as places we live, work, learn and play—it is safe to say that everyone and every sector has (should) interest in health and healthy communities. There is a strong economic rationale for investing in health. Health boosts individual and household income, as well as a country’s GDP, in so many different ways. For example, healthier people work harder and take fewer days off for sickness, and healthier, well-nourished children are more likely to go to school and stay there longer, which in turn is linked to higher earnings in adulthood.

For me, this means we frame health more broadly to identify others who share our value in health. For example, we are working with early childhood education sector, food industry, and other financial institutions that appreciate the connection between the social, environmental and economic determinants and health outcomes. Additionally, we are building strong working relationships with many health care institutions and hospital systems. In New Jersey, we are currently working with several hospitals, RWJ Barnabas Hospital System, St. Joseph University Medical Center, Trinitas Medical Center, AtlantiCare and many are investing to build healthy communities by focusing on housing (i.e. supportive housing, subsidized and supportive housing for the most financially vulnerable patients; healthy homes; and employee home ownership down payment assistance) and improving neighborhood by investing in urban farms, early education centers and schools, and parks and open space for their patients, employees and the community at large. Across the country we are collaborating with national health systems such as Dignity Health and Catholic Health Initiatives, who are investing in our community loan fund to support home ownership and small business development programs

“Given that 80% of our health is determined by environments outside of health care, such as places we live, work, learn and play—it is safe to say that everyone and every sector has (should) interest in health and healthy communities.”

SG: As you talk about the layering and the connections to the opportunities that really support more transformative plans for communities, I was hoping you could talk about your role working in government as the Director of Health and Human Services for the city of Newark and how you really leveraged that role and your connection through grass roots organizing, which were some of the things that you really focused on during our conversation when you were with us for the Virtual Learning Convening.

HH: Of course. I’m going to take a step back and provide a bit of information about my background before my role as the health director for the city of Newark. I moved to Newark in 2005 for a graduate work in a joint doctoral program in public health, and architecture and urban planning. My doctoral dissertation focused on the impact of built environments (food systems, housing, open space, and active transportation) and how people make health behavior decisions based on the design of cities and social structural drivers. After graduate school, I decided to stay in Newark and joined Rutgers Medical School as Assistant Professor in Dept. of Family Medicine. While at the medical school, my research continued to expand investigating the intersection of the built environment and social structures how that intersection shapes health decisions. It is not common to see community development and urban planning oriented research or teaching in medical schools. But I had incredible support and mentorship at the medical school, and my chair supported my research, community development projects and grass root organizing. For example, I received my first research grant from NJ Dept of Health-Shaping NJ to investigate the impact of community violence on health behavior of families with children (Safety by Design). We found, as in many urban cities, in Newark, particularly in the South Ward were I focused my research, blighted neighborhoods, the lack of affordable and safe housing, community-level violence, household and community level food insecurity, and entrenched intergenerational poverty were at the core of the social, physical and mental health issues. But in spite of all of these conditions, Newark residents had grit and were determined reclaim their neighborhoods and improve living conditions for all.

Through the Shaping NJ grant, we were able to hire and train Newark residents in research methods to work along medical students to scan community health needs and identify community prioritized solutions. The residents learned valuable skills that enabled them to gain employment and with meaningful wages. The medical students had an opportunity to walk and see the community and neighborhood conditions that influenced the health of Newark residents. These students also had the opportunity to observe the social and environmental factors that determined the health of the patients that came to our clinics and emergency rooms. This research helped secure more grants from Living Cities and Community Foundation of NJ, and this allowed community residents and medical students to co-develop an intervention plan: The Healthy Village—which included redevelopment and programming of Mildred Helms Park, housing preservation of abandoned and foreclosed homes around the Park, improving neighborhood corner stores, training community residents to become certified farmers and also business operators of the urban farm–which fed 70-preschools in Newark and provided fresh vegetables to high-end restaurants in New York). In 2014, a year after I received the grant, I was appointed to become the director of health and human services for City of Newark. Five years later The Healthy Village still continues, NJCC acquired the abandoned homes around Mildred Helms Park and continues to renovate and redevelop the home with the generous support of RWJ-Barnabas and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Farm is currently co-operated by Essex County and Radical Farms. As the health director of health and human services, I oversaw complex public health emergencies and some that were global epidemics. Few months after I took office, we faced the 2014 Ebola Virus epidemic, shortly after there was a fatal case of Lassa Fever Virus and not too long after that in 2015 we had 17,000 children exposed to lead. As a public health practitioner, I had training to manage communicable disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However nothing could have prepared me for a global epidemic in a city with aging water and sewer infrastructure, and while simultaneously addressing a growing homeless population.

“My doctoral dissertation focused on the impact of built environments (food systems, housing, open space, and active transportation) and how people make health behavior decisions based on the design of cities and social structural drivers”

SG: As we talk about your role in joining the city, it didn’t start with just joining the city, it really started with the research that you had been doing and working with medical students to address the social determinants of health. That included active transportation, parks, housing and also aging infrastructure. You actually went to residents, engaged them early on, did asset assessments that allowed you to map the needs and resources in those respective neighborhoods. When you were presented the opportunity to work for the city, it was really developing out that program in tandem with city resources to support a lot of those initiatives. Is that correct?

HH: Absolutely. The work I delivered as the health director was informed by nine years of community engagement, facilitated discussions, in addition to my academic research..

In 2010, I launched a Newark-wide, program called CommunityTalks. Each program convened local experts in health and medicine, social sciences, complementary medicine—such as acupuncture, meditation, herbalists, santeras, drummers—in a facilitated discussions on health and wellness topics that reflected the culture and health concerns prioritized by the community. By the end of 2013, we facilitated 30 sessions on topics from diabetes management to evictions, childhood hunger, domestic violence and police brutality. Out of these sessions, I was able to develop intervention and preventive policies, programs and ordinances in city hall. It all came from Newark residents. I have always followed the Five-Ps to equity framework or approach in any community health initiatives.

  • Start with people’s needs, priorities and their history and ensure they have an active voice and say in how the initiative is developed and implemented.
  • Use thorough assessments of place (at the neighborhood) where you intend to implement the initiative. Document needs as well as assets. Capitalize on the rich history of what makes communities culturally resilient,
  • Foster and cultivate cross-sector partnerships to support your initiative. No one person, organization or field can carry out community initiatives or development alone;
  • Establish policies that ameliorate sustainability and the impact of the initiative.

SG: I love that. One of the other questions that came up was just how do we restore parks and preserve the history of a community? Are there other things that you see as guiding and really thinking about how we can restore parks, preserve the history of a community?

HH: The the other P [chuckle] and that’s community development planning. We build parks for people but oftentimes the residents are not engaged. Every green conference and meetings I attend, I am asked about green gentrification- which asserts that new parks and other green public space development gentrify neighborhoods (i.e. any one or a combination of any one of these–increased property tax residential and business, increase rent and decrease in affordable housing) displace low-income black and brown communities. Few take away points: First, every community has a right to have access to quality parks within walking distance from where they live, work, learn and worship. Parks are essential features of healthy communities and when planned and designed with intentionality and community residents, they can powerfully impact urgent public, social and environmental issues. Second, parks don’t displace people, people displace people. Historically, community development such as highway systems and transportation, housing development policies—urban renewal– explicitly targeted black communities and have had devastating lasting impact. Today, park development can potentially have the same negative impact. When park development, like any development, is not intentional and inclusive of all the people community in every aspect of the development, these green spaces by design can exclude people, especially vulnerable populations (i.e. homeless population, people and children with disability). Even worse, they can be potential catalysts for displacement. Park building is part of larger community development plan that include housing, transportation or businesses. Park development practices only involve the community in the participatory design phase—often time this is conflated with community engagement, but it’s totally different—at this stage, site development has been confirmed and the community is invited to choose the aesthetics and color themes for the park. Secondly, park development agencies rarely conduct comprehensive community needs assessment to understand the community’s vulnerability—eviction rate, homelessness, private redevelopment plans– before redeveloping existing parks or creating new green spaces.

Without this full understanding, park developers further exacerbate community vulnerability and can spur gentrification and which eventually lead to displacement. From Central Park in New York City to 606 highline in Chicago, these parks were not planned or developed with or for black and brown communities. As result, many families and communities were uprooted and histories were lost.

When planned with intentionality and in tandem with the community, parks can help address the most urgent climate, social and health issues. For example the Mildred Helms Park Resurrection Committee in Newark, centered park development with neighborhood revitalization plan (e.g. affordable housing, small business development and economic stability, early childhood education, community health center…). After developing the plan, the Committee worked with a local park organization to redevelop the park.

“When park development, like any development, is not intentional and inclusive of all the people community in every aspect of the development, these green spaces by design can exclude people, especially vulnerable populations.”

SG: A follow-up conversation was, “Well, what about open space?”

HH: Every community has connection to open space, every community has a need for nature. Parks and open public spaces can restore frayed social fabrics lost to trauma and community violence. Well planned open spaces informed and guided by people’s history and culture have a huge potential bring people and communities together to heal. Open spaces can be restorative, we just have to think of them differently.

What was really helpful in the redevelopment of Mildred Helms Park was the reorientation of how the residents thought of the park and its function. This shift from thinking of a park as only a site for recreation to also realizing its full and broader utility to help improve the quality of the neighborhood, address unemployment, curb community level violence and increase community connection. Although not a large park, from 2006 to now, the Mildred Helms Park employees adult and young adults year round. In a city where rampant violence among youths out numbers youth summer programs, the park keeps many youth employed and engaged in positive activities.

“This shift from thinking of a park as only a site for recreation to also realizing its full and broader utility to help improve the quality of the neighborhood, address unemployment, curb community level violence and increase community connection.”

SG: Another thing we’ve been talking about within SPARCC is that we’ve seen the real estate market respond to new amenities in a community, creating green gentrification. Can you comment on the interplay, particularly when you talk about the utility function of parks, between the real estate and capital markets and the factors that you’re mentioning in terms of planning and park investment?

HH: The phenomenon of green gentrification is an interplay of development and practices of poor park planning, More often than not parks are planned for rather than with communities of color, and in my experience, this has always led to displacing communities.

There are several actions communities can take to use parks to build stronger communities and stand against capital markets and real estate do not value indigenous communities.

  • Establish city charters that protect communities from park alienation and private redevelopment of public lands. Santa Barbara, CA and New York City have established municipal ordinances and these can serve as guide and best practices.
  • Every community should be familiar with its green space masterplan. Work with local government and city planner to establish public hearing for every park development.
  • Establish community land trusts that protect and preserve public lands for affordable housing and open space.
  • Every new park development should be required to establish displacement protection policies for financially vulnerable population impacted by the new/redevelopment of the park. This should be especially required of national green organizations that develop neighborhood parks but abandoned the projects after completing the development. These organizations should establish and fund local community park stewardship groups to maintain and program the parks.
  • Work with local anchor institutions (nonprofit academic and higher education, hospital and health care systems, community development corporations and banks) to invest in park development. These investments meet institutional tax-exemption requirements, and by definition these institutions are anchored in the community and have interest in stabilizing and improving the quality of life of the residents.

SG: Solving the challenges is not just about the park, it’s the intersectionality of all the issues facing a community, is that right?

HH: Absolutely. It is not an accident that where there is a need for a park, there are also other needs, such as affordable quality housing, environmental justice, food security, employment, and access to quality health care. It is also not a coincidence these same communities disproportionately suffer from clusters of chronic diseases, maternal and infant mortality and shorter life expectancy by as much as 15 and 20 years when compared to more affluent communities. A park alone cannot displace an intact community, and just as much, one park cannot resolve all the social and health issues of a community.  However, parks should be part of a larger community strategy to help address social, environmental and climate, and health issues.

SG: Thank you for your time in speaking with us, and also in terms of all that you have done.

HH: Thank you, this is an amazing opportunity to actually be able to talk about how to conceptualize community development and incorporate park development into neighborhood planning and revitalization efforts. I am excited to see the evolution of the SPARCC cities’ interest in park development as a strategy to build resilient healthy communities.